(An edited version of this REVIEW appears in BUSINESS WORLD of 12th Nov 2012)
Title: Return to India Author: Shoba Narayan
Publisher: Rupa Publications Price : Rs. 395
Most young Indians desire is to go and make a career outside India. Surely, the most sought after destination is the United States of America. Every youth would love to escape the education system in India and complete the graduation and beyond in USA. Affordability is one important deterrent. One other way to get in is to do very well and get an admission with as much scholarship as one could get. The other way is to get a graduation from a good institution in India and do the post graduation in the “promised land”. Then you take up a job, get a green card and get citizenship.
The quality of life and the merit based system is a big pull. Once settled in to a job, the thing to do is to find a culturally compatible spouse from India and melt with the Indian community out there. Life goes on, dreams get bigger and the stay prolongs. At some stage, when the children grow up, the dilemma of ‘return to India’ confronts everyone.
Return to India, by Shoba Narayan is a ‘memoir’ of the entire journey narrated crisply. The author, coming from a conservative ‘tambram’ family records the conflict from departure to return. The family elders who do not want her to go, her determination to go and the campus life are recorded honestly. Without going in to details, the author has conveyed the conflicts and the turmoil across the family in embarking on this journey. The conservative upbringing and the value systems remain with her and the happy acceptance of the choice of spouse selected by the parents get narrated faithfully.
Emotions play a big role throughout the memoir. The narrative style is appealing because the emotions are conveyed by simple narration of events and a lot of reading between the lines is required. At each stage, the author makes you pause, think and let the reader take a call about which side to take. Nearly two decades of a person’s life are covered very well in just over 250 pages.
The author’s love for New York comes through very well. Obviously, staying in the big apple also implies a level of status that not all émigrés to USA will enjoy. To this extent, the memoir steps clear of any economic challenges that an Indian with an average or below average pay packet would face out there.
The memoir also captures the change in life once life enters the marriage phase. The arrival of children brings across the conflict between the material things in life and cultural values. The author goes to USA after the formative years were spent with family members in India. Far out in the USA, when your children start on their journey in life, the conflicts begin. Should one leave the children to grow up with life in USA or should one return home so that the children grow up with ‘home’ culture and values? This is the eternal conflict and resolving it is not easy. Till the family emerges, you live life chasing your own dreams. Once children come on the scene you devote all your energies to them. You want to take a hard call on return to India. I guess these are personal calls and each one may react differently. The author does not pass any value judgements and simply states what path she took.
At one level, the memoir also tells me a thing or two about financial security for a middle class Indian, especially if you are a ‘Tam Bram”. The education system out here in India drives the cream away from India. In the USA they get to the top of the economic ladder and that gives them the freedom to make choices. Given the prudence of most Indians, they reach financial freedom early enough to be able to make a choice on ‘back home’ option. Along the way, US citizenship for the children gives them the flexibility to follow the path that their parents took. Of course, one also has the option of not returning and let the children grow up there and be a citizen in the true sense. The author does talk about her friends who chose that option.
The memoir, at one level, is also about how we handle our urge for ‘freedom’. The societal mores and pressures makes us want to ‘get away from it all’ and seek greener pastures. After doing that, we find that the same threads that we wanted to cut off, continue to pull us. The reason for our escape also becomes the reason for our return.
Being a memoir, the author sticks to her feelings and conflicts. As a story, we long to know about the other family members. This is not a shortcoming but a credit to her for staying the course, when it would have been easy to digress. This is recommended reading for all children who want to leave our shores in search of a ‘better’ life. This memoir also tells me why the USA should be the first choice for emigration.